'Once Upon a Time' Offers a Mix of Hope and Cynicism

Storybrooke, Maine seems like Twin Peaks’ evil twin. Once Upon a Time is set in yet another apparently tranquil town that harbors something seriously sinister.

Once Upon a Time

Airtime: Sundays, 8pm ET
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Jared Gilmore, Robert Carlyle, Josh Dallas, Lana Parrilla, Jamie Dornan
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Creator: Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis
Air date: 2011-10-23

Storybrooke, Maine seems like Twin Peaks’ evil twin. Once Upon a Time is set in yet another apparently tranquil town that harbors something seriously sinister. It's populated by fairy tale characters who have been exiled there, transported from their vaguely medieval idyll into 21st-century sociopolitical upheaval. Just before he and his wife are wrenched from their romantic castle, Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) assures her of what they've always believed: “Good just can’t lose." She's less sanguine as she replies, “Maybe it can."

Once Upon a Time's familiarity extends beyond its characters. Series creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, former writers of mythology-heavy Lost, here reintroduce some of Lost’s much-discussed themes: time operating strangely, lives extending unexpectedly, and people yearning for home or not being who they seem to be.

These themes emerge from a basic premise: at the start of Once Upon a Time, an Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) curses newlyweds Prince Charming and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), who are poised to enjoy a happy future in which they balance family life with noble obligations. In pursuit of her own happy ending, which depends on the misery of others, the queen transports the couple and all their fairy tale friends to the very human realm of Storybrooke. Only a special child might someday save them.

Rural Maine here provides a selection of connections to Lost: the hands of the town clock are frozen at 8:15. (You don't have to be a diehard Lost fan to remember that Oceanic Flight 815 crash-landed.) The house where Storybrooke’s mayor (also played by Parrilla) lives is Number 108, one of Lost’s magic numbers (thus conveniently pointing to the character with the darkest secret). The mayor’s 10-year-old adopted son Henry (Jared Gilmore) considers her to be an evil witch, which prompts him to go looking for his biological mother. She turns out to be bail bondsperson Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is unaware of her own biological parents -- Snow White and Prince Charming. Not coincidentally, another Lost theme integrated in Once Upon a Time is the struggle between parents and children, as well as the separation and eventual reunion of biological parents with their long-lost offspring.

The new series also borrows Lost's interest in ancestor texts: repeatedly, well-known stories rich with cultural meanings add layers of symbolism to the current story. The most obvious ancestor texts for Once Upon a Time are fairy tales, whether they are told Grimmly or translated more sunnily by Walt Disney.

In Storybrooke, the fairy tale characters don’t remember their former lives, but the audience will. As Snow White -- now Henry’s teacher and named Mary -- explains the difference between a "home" and a "cage" (you know: if you love something, set it free), she opens a classroom window and frees a bluebird held gently in her hand. The scene harkens to Disney’s 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which the title character charms the animals and birds of the forest, including a bluebird perched upon her finger. In a later scene, Emma wakes up in jail the morning after crashing her car on the way out of town. She hears a "happy tune," courtesy of the man in the next cell: “Whistle While You Work.” Because Swan is the long-lost daughter of Snow White, having the dwarfs’ trademark song as her literal wake-up call to her true identity is humorous as well as a little provocative.

So is watching the mayor stare just a little too intently into her circular mirror, just as Disney’s villain consulted her talking glass when she plotted Snow White’s destruction. (The Storybrooke mirror hasn’t talked back yet… but give it time.) The mayor also keeps a bowl of apples on the table and offers Emma apple cider -- the better to worry viewers, if not Emma herself.

Seeing Mary or her husband (here, John Doe) or the mayor in their new context may evoke political interpretations as well. In a world where cities are declaring bankruptcy and government officials consider corporations their constituents, the evil queen seems a darkly comedic and very apt reflection of the 99%’s growing frustration. Storybrooke’s trapped citizens, like today’s protesters, are looking for a hero.

These days, as happy endings seem ever elusive, Once Upon a Time's heroes -- a courageous newlywed and a plucky little boy -- are at once unusual and timeless. Still, as Snow White first muses, the outcome of their struggle is precarious, no longer written in stone -- or a book.

In its premiere episode, Once Upon a Time offers a mix of hope and cynicism, coupled with familiar television and film allusions (not unlike the Shreks). Its return to fairy tales is not exactly nostalgic or comforting; it doesn’t ask viewers to escape or "forget" their troubles. As in real life, the battle lines may be drawn in black and white, but the issues are bound to become grayer as we get to know these characters better.

Such grayness was a hallmark of Lost. Those viewers who spent years watching Lost only to be dissatisfied with the still ambiguous finale might consider the true curse facing Once Upon a Time to be its reliance on elaborate mythology -- not to mention two alternate universes existing in the same timeline. Perhaps the greatest question set up in Once Upon a Time’s pilot episode is this: will the people of Storybrooke -- or those of us watching the first episode of a promising new series -- ever have their dreams come true?


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